Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9

Notes (NET Translation)

4 Then they traveled from Mount Hor by the road to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, but the people became impatient along the way.

People argue that the sea that splits in Exodus 14 is not the Red Sea but rather the “Reed Sea,” an otherwise unknown body of water. But the reference to the yam sup here, when the Israelites are no longer anywhere near Egypt, must refer to the eastern arm of the Red Sea, which is the only body of water that extends both up into Egypt and to a location far away in the Sinai.1

5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no bread or water, and we detest this worthless food.”

Now the people speak not only against Moses, but against God as well. The “you” is plural. If they are calling the manna “worthless food” they are degrading the food God has graciously given them.

6 So the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit the people; many people of Israel died.

The meaning of the Hebrew sarap (“poisonous”) is uncertain. It is listed alongside “snake” and “scorpion” in Deut 8:15 but refers to flying creatures in Isa 6:6; 14:29; 30:6. Isa 6:2 identifies the Seraphim as heavenly beings. It is worth noting that a seraph is the agent of purification for Isaiah (Isa 6:5-7). Most modern commentators appear to understand the term to refer to “burning” and therefore, in this context, to refer to the burning sensation and pain resulting from the snakebite.

In ancient Greece certain snakes were called dipsas (“thirst”) because their bites caused intense thirst; others were called kausōn and prēstēr because their bites caused inflammation and swelling. Thus one might call these serpents “burners” because their bites inflicted a fiery inflammation.2

7 Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD that he would take away the snakes from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live.”

Looking at the bronze snake may represent appealing to it for healing. The verb “look” often carries the idea of seeing with belief or understanding. John 3:14 uses the bronze snake as a type for Jesus’s crucifixion.

Why does God have Moses make a serpent at all? Why not miraculously heal the Israelites directly? Some think it is a test of Israel’s obedience.

The text is not explicit, but various explanations have been offered. Among Israel’s neighbours the serpent seems to have been a symbol of life and fertility, and in Egypt model serpents were worn to ward off serpent-bites. But neither of these explanations seems very appropriate here. In Israel snakes were unclean and personified sin (Lev. 11:41-42; Gen. 3). Here, too, the serpent is a cure for those bitten, not a protection against bites. I suggest that the clue to the symbolism should be sought in the general principles underlying the sacrifices and purificatory rites in the Old Testament. Animals are killed, so that sinful men who deserve to die may live. Blood which pollutes when it is spilled can be used to sanctify and purify men and articles. The ashes of a dead heifer cleanse those who suffer from the impurity caused by death. In all these rituals there is an inversion: normally polluting substances or actions may in a ritual context have the opposite effect and serve to purify. In the case of the copper serpent similar principles operate. Those inflamed and dying through the bite of living snakes were restored to life by a dead reddish-coloured snake. It may be that copper was chosen not only because its hue matched the inflammation caused by the bites, but because red is the colour that symbolizes atonement and purification.

Finally it should be noted that in every sacrifice (e.g. Lev. 1-4) the worshipper had to lay his hand on the animal’s head. In purification rituals the worshipper had to be sprinkled with the purifying liquid (Lev. 14; Num. 19, etc.). Without physical contact the sacrifice or cleansing ritual was ineffective. In the case of the copper serpent there is a similar insistence on the affected person appropriating the healing power of God through looking at the snake set up on the pole. The importance of seeing the copper snake is brought out by the command to set it on a pole (8-9) and the twice-repeated comment everyone who . . . sees it shall live. In other words, contact between the saving symbol and the affected person was still required, but in the special circumstances here described visual contact was all that was necessary.

If this is the right way to interpret the story of the copper snake, it is clear how our Lord could use it as an apt picture of his own saving ministry. Men dying in sin are saved by the dead body of a man suspended on the cross. Just as physical contact was impossible between those bitten by snakes and the copper snake, so sinners are unable to touch the life-giving body of Christ. Yet in both situations the sufferers must appropriate God’s healing power themselves: by looking at the copper snake or ‘believing in the Son of man’ (John 3:15).3

9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that if a snake had bitten someone, when he looked at the bronze snake he lived.

Hebrew nehoset can mean copper or bronze. It is similar to the Hebrew word for serpent (nahas). 2 Kings 18:4 tells us that King Hezekiah “demolished the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been offering incense to it; it was called Nehushtan.”

A five-inch-long copper snake was found in a tent shrine in Timna. It may be dated to approximately 1150 BC. An eight-inch-long coiled copper snake found at Tel Mevorakh has been dated to the Late Bronze Age. A bronze bowl, dating to the end of the eighth century BC, was found in the royal palace of Nineveh and had Hebrew writing on it and a winged snake perched on a standard (pole) engraved on its rim.

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 21-36. The Anchor Yale Bible. New York: Yale University Press, 2000.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Friedman 2001, 498 
  2. Ashley 1993, 404 
  3. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2768-2788 
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